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Can a Tech Company Build a City? Ask Google

Sidewalk Toronto will become a 1,200-acre testing ground for new tech products

A startup called Sidewalk Labs is joining the city of Toronto in a project to redevelop a waterfront area into Sidewalk Toronto, an attempt to radically reimagine the way a city is created.
Image Credit: Blair Stirrett via Flickr


Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation startup owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, has announced a partnership with the City of Toronto to develop a new waterfront precinct. Time to ask Google: Can you build a city?

The Quayside precinct, dubbed “Sidewalk Toronto,” is to become a 500-hectare (1,236-acre) sandpit for testing a suite of new tech products. The aim is to radically reimagine the way a city is made. (Further reading: Creative City, Smart City … Whose City Is It?.)

Even if only a fraction of the ideas being touted work, Sidewalk Labs will be expanding the possibilities of tech-enabled urbanism to far loftier heights than many run-of-the-mill smart city strategies.

Best take note. Any city mildly interested in using technology smarts to improve cities should be paying very close attention.

Learning from smart city failures

Sidewalk Toronto plans to grow phoenix-like out of the ashes of failed smart cities.

Smart cities are based on the idea that cities can be made more liveable, sustainable, and efficient by making better use of information and communications technologies. This idea promises a lot, but so far has failed to deliver much.

The biggest failures in the 20-year history of smart cities — notably China’s Dongtan and South Korea’s Songdo — are testament to the hard-boiled truth that good cities can’t be built out of a technology mainframe. Even if they have tech smarts, they haven’t been places people have learned to call home.

And, as companies like IBM, Cisco, and Microsoft have learned, it’s not easy to redeploy the large-scale operating systems used by big organizations into complex urban environments.

Cities are messy places. They’re a heady mix of privatized utilities, legacy infrastructures, resource-constrained public authorities, and opinionated voting publics. These ingredients have made it hard to sell a data platform that can operate at the scale needed to produce any real efficiency benefits.

Instead, what has so far been delivered are cities abounding in prototypes of smart parking and smart lights. More were announced in November under the Australian government’s A$50 million Smart Cities and Suburbs Program.

Reimagining cities from the internet up

We have seen very little of the “game-changing” disruption promoted at smart city conferences worldwide. This is also why Sidewalk Labs matters.

Led by CEO Dan Doctoroff, who was deputy mayor of New York under Michael Bloomberg, the company is on a mission to “reimagine cities from the internet up.” Crucially, this is Google’s version of the internet — the one you’re most likely occupying most of your waking hours.

Instead of trying to sell a clunky operating system that fits legacy infrastructure with new data points, Sidewalk Labs is building products it thinks will change how citizens use the city. And let’s not forget it will own and monetize the data created when people use these products.

Rather than upgrading what we have already, the thinking behind Sidewalk Labs is more focused on the core of how people behave in cities.

For instance, its parking app, Flow, isn’t just about helping you find an empty parking space, as many smart parking systems do. It introduces a new pricing model that lowers the cost of parking for people who have had to travel farther. And it penalizes those who really should have walked.

The point of using sensors to monitor air quality and temperature isn’t just to generate real-time data, which governments may or may not use. It proposes to use the data to create optimized environments that reduce the need for restrictive zoning, allowing for “radical mixed use” zoning.

City Block Health, another startup spun out of Sidewalk Labs, is a personalized health system in the U.S. for Medicaid or Medicare members. Presumably, though it’s a bit hard to tell, this will allow these people to be supported across many different (data-driven) interactions as they shop, commute, and go about their daily lives.

This is human-centred product design for an era of not just digitally enabled but “Google-powered” citizens.

The solutions offered here take in the full span of city regulation, pricing, planning, building, and human interaction. This is not just tinkering at the edges of urban systems with new technology; this is redesigning the system with the technology at the core.

Of course, the scope to experiment with and ultimately reshape Google-powered urban behavior is only possible when Sidewalk Labs owns and operates the city space where it can trial its products. This is the premise of Sidewalk Toronto.

No longer ‘us and them’

Sidewalk Toronto is being built as a beacon for other cities to follow.

The way Sidewalk Labs sees it, the idea that technologists and urbanists can’t get along has to change. The company is integrating urbanists and technologists into its product planning. It’s including residents and workers in beta testing, with a city government giving it social license to operate.

Instead of a cartel of architects, urban planners, consultants, developers, and regulators mapping out the future of the city behind closed doors using the standard master planning process, the company will spend US$50 million over the next year to support an open conversation between citizens, governments, universities, and others about what Sidewalk Toronto should be.

Sidewalk Labs hosted a community town hall meeting in November, inviting Toronto residents to join the conversation.

Sidewalk Labs is building offices across the U.S. It’s recruiting a cavalcade of new product managers, partnership and business development managers, machine-learning specialists, and forward-thinking urbanists.

If its aggressive recruitment strategy is anything to go by, Sidewalk Labs is aiming for its tech products — focused on urban disruption, powered by the data it hoovers up from our daily lives — to raise the bar for city-making around the world. Doctoroff describes his desire to expand to other cities as “insatiable.”

No doubt there will be lots of ideas that go nowhere. But one thing is clear: Sidewalk Labs is thinking about cities like no other technology company has done before it.

Whether it succeeds in actually building one is everybody’s business.

Sarah Barns is a research fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society at Australia’s Western Sydney University. This post originally appeared at The Conversation.


  1. AlanB4 | | #1

    Why does this remind me of the Zeitgeist "movement"
    Its a weird concept of no money and "perfect" design that will somehow solve all of humanity's problems (no surprise if most have not heard of it, its a strange cult like "society"). Its not quite the same as this plan but it has many similarities, grandiose theories, pointless abstractions, overpromising vague results to come...

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Alan B
    As the New York Times article on this project notes, "Quayside, as the project is known, will be laden with sensors and cameras tracking everyone who lives, works or merely passes through the area. In what Sidewalk calls a marriage of technology and urbanism, the resulting mass of data will be used to further shape and refine the new city. ... But extending the surveillance powers of one of the world’s largest technology companies from the virtual world to the real one raises privacy concerns for many residents."

    Ah, yes -- one more example of "the internet of things." It's not my idea of a desirable future.

  3. AlanB4 | | #3

    I missed that part, its even
    I missed that part, its even worse

  4. jackofalltrades777 | | #4

    Tech Utopia
    With Google, Twitter and the rest of the tech companies stealing and selling your personal information to advertisers and the such. It is no surprise that a company like Google wants to build a city that it can monitor and follow your every step. They believe they can create a tech utopia. As they saying goes, one man's heaven is another man's hell. Oh wait, I am surprised Google didn't correct my "man's" statement and convert it to "person"

  5. AndyKosick | | #5

    Company Town
    Let's face it large corporations have been directly and indirectly building cities for ages. Where I come from many cities share a name with an automobile and it's not a coincidence. But, as soon as it's more profitable some where else or these companies go out of business, they leave an economic void and (at least traditionally) a toxic mess for the local government to deal with. This may be over simplified but it's also mostly true. As the son of a "city worker" I have learned the dark side of local companies and wealthy donors giving the city "gifts". As soon as the shine wears off, they're gone, and city is left with a maintenance obligation in perpetuity.
    Privacy concerns and "internet of things" aside, when I read about this I picture Toronto in a couple decades, Sidewalk Labs long since having lost interest, with a big chuck of aging infrastructure that's completely dependent on obsolete technology and no good source for the funds to deal with it. I realize the integration of cities and technology is inevitable and probably beneficial but I just hope these municipalities can see past the luster of these new ideas and make sure they long terms plans in writing from the companies they're dealing with. Corporations have a great deal of difficulty developing plans beyond the point of profitability.
    I think this is why I'm also frustrated when I hear of these cities ready to rename themselves Googleville or something to get a new headquarters built there.

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